Thursday, January 26, 2006

Feeding the Owls

Perhaps there is no concrete scientific evidence supporting that baiting owls with mice causes them to habituate to people, but I was told by at least one person that last year's Northern Hawk Owl at Harrington Beach State Park became so used to people bringing it mice that it was "almost like a pet." Apparently, she observed the bird swooping down right next to cars that stopped along the road. I have to ask - can this really be a good thing for the bird?

Now there is a new slant to the problem of bringing mice to birds of prey. Check out this recent story from New York:

"LYNDONVILLE, N.Y. (AP) - Yates Supervisor Russ Martino couldn't be happier that bird enthusiasts are flocking to his town to catch a glimpse of the rare Northern Hawk Owl hanging out in a tree along Route 63. But nearby homeowners in this western New York town near Rochester are growing somewhat weary of all the fuss. It seems some of the enthusiastic bird lovers are bringing mice and setting them free in surrounding fields, hoping to see the owl swoop down and hunt."

Link: Full Story from

There has been an on-going debate on the Geneseebirds listserv and one landowner recently chimed in with this feedback (used with permission):

From: Kristine & Michael Grager
Sent: Sunday, January 22, 2006 12:21 AM
Subject: Hawk owl

I am the landowner of which the northern hawk owl has been primarily taken up residence. First I would like to let everyone know that in the past 2-weeks there have been well over a thousand (probably approaching) two thousand visitors to our normally quiet town, where the most excitement we get is our annual 4th of July celebration. When national news (and local) reported that people had been releasing mice, to feed the owl (and it was mostly to get a better picture!!!) the residents of this area were not very happy to say the least. This owl had been here for 2-4 weeks before it was spotted and banded by a local man. I am sure that it was surviving pretty well on it's own as there are many fields full of prey for this bird. Of the many people that have visited my home in the past 2 weeks me and my family would have to say that for the most part everyone has been very nice and friendly. I understand that for many of the birders it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the bird, since it's range is the arctic and the species rarely comes into the United States. Unfortunately I have had to post my land from people wanting to get too close and disturbing the bird. (Friday the harriers were doing a well enough job of their own). I am very glad that so many people have gotten to appreciate this little owl, (it's the only national news from our little town) and I hope many more can get a glimpse for as long as it wants to stay.

Michael Grager & Family

I agree. To me this is so reminiscent of the recent Middleton Snowy Owl situation. At the Rochester Birding website there is a survey showing the vast majority of people are opposed to bringing mice to this particular Northern Hawk Owl:

Is it OK to bring mice for the Hawk Owl?

Yes: 1% - 16 votes
No: 99% - 1194 votes

1210 Total Votes

Still, why do a few people feel this is OK? It's an interesting question and ethnical dilemma for bird photographers. At least one nature photographer I spoke with argued that since is all right to put birdseed out in our backyards for cardinals, then what's the big deal about setting mice out for owls? Can comparing birds that have habituated to the confines and relative safety of urban backyards be used to justify feeding irruptive boreal owls along highways? How about when the intent behind providing it with food is to capture a photograph?

Northern Hawk Owl image © 2006 Mike McDowell

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